The Talking Fish
: A Chinese Wonder Book
Long, long before your great-grandfather was born there lived in the
village of Everlasting Happiness two men called Li and Sing. Now, these
two men were close friends, living together in the same house. Before
settling down in the village of Everlasting Happiness they had ruled as
high officials for more than twenty years. They had often treated the
people very harshly, so that everybody, old and young, disliked and
ted them. And yet, by robbing the wealthy merchants and by cheating
the poor, these two evil companions had become rich, and it was in order
to spend their ill-gotten gains in idle amusements that they sought out
the village of Everlasting Happiness. "For here," said they, "we can
surely find that joy which has been denied us in every other place. Here
we shall no longer be scorned by men and reviled by women."
Consequently these two men bought for themselves the finest house in
the village, furnished it in the most elegant manner, and decorated
the walls with scrolls filled with wise sayings and pictures by famous
artists. Outside there were lovely gardens filled with flowers and
birds, and oh, ever so many trees with queer twisted branches growing
in the shape of tigers and other wild animals.
Whenever they felt lonely Li and Sing invited rich people of the
neighbourhood to come and dine with them, and after they had eaten,
sometimes they would go out upon the little lake in the centre of their
estate, rowing in an awkward flat-bottomed boat that had been built by
the village carpenter.
One day, on such an occasion, when the sun had been beating down
fiercely upon the clean-shaven heads of all those on the little barge,
for you must know this was long before the day when hats were worn--at
least, in the village of Everlasting Happiness--Mr. Li was suddenly
seized with a giddy feeling, which rapidly grew worse and worse until
he was in a burning fever.
"Snake's blood mixed with powdered deer-horn is the thing for him,"
said the wise-looking doctor who was called in, peering at Li carefully
through his huge glasses, "Be sure," he continued, addressing Li's
personal attendant, and, at the same time, snapping his long
finger-nails nervously, "be sure, above all, not to leave him alone, for
he is in danger of going raving mad at any moment, and I cannot say what
he may do if he is not looked after carefully. A man in his condition
has no more sense than a baby."
Now, although these words of the doctor's really made Mr. Li angry, he
was too ill to reply, for all this time his head had been growing hotter
and hotter, until at last a feverish sleep overtook him. No sooner had
he closed his eyes than his faithful servant, half-famished, rushed out
of the room to join his fellows at their mid-day meal.
Li awoke with a start. He had slept only ten minutes. "Water, water,"
he moaned, "bathe my head with cold water. I am half dead with pain!"
But there was no reply, for the attendant was dining happily with his
"Air, air," groaned Mr. Li, tugging at the collar of his silk shirt.
"I'm dying for water. I'm starving for air. This blazing heat will kill
me. It is hotter than the Fire god himself ever dreamed of making it.
Wang, Wang!" clapping his hands feebly and calling to his servant,
"air and water, air and water!"
But still no Wang.
At last, with the strength that is said to come from despair, Mr. Li
arose from his couch and staggered toward the doorway. Out he went into
the paved courtyard, and then, after only a moment's hesitation, made
his way across it into a narrow passage that led into the lake garden.
"What do they care for a man when he is sick?" he muttered. "My good
friend Sing is doubtless even now enjoying his afternoon nap, with a
servant standing by to fan him, and a block of ice near his head to cool
the air. What does he care if I die of a raging fever? Doubtless he
expects to inherit all my money. And my servants! That rascal Wang has
been with me these ten years, living on me and growing lazier every
season! What does he care if I pass away? Doubtless he is certain that
Sing's servants will think of something for him to do, and he will have
even less work than he has now. Water, water! I shall die if I don't
soon find a place to soak myself!"
So saying, he arrived at the bank of a little brook that flowed in
through a water gate at one side of the garden and emptied itself into
the big fish-pond. Flinging himself down by a little stream Li bathed
his hands and wrists in the cool water. How delightful! If only it were
deep enough to cover his whole body, how gladly would he cast himself in
and enjoy the bliss of its refreshing embrace!
For a long time he lay on the ground, rejoicing at his escape from the
doctor's clutches. Then, as the fever began to rise again, he sprang up
with a determined cry, "What am I waiting for? I will do it. There's no
one to prevent me, and it will do me a world of good. I will cast myself
head first into the fish-pond. It is not deep enough near the shore to
drown me if I should be too weak to swim, and I am sure it will restore
me to strength and health."
He hastened along the little stream, almost running in his eagerness to
reach the deeper water of the pond. He was like some small Tom Brown who
had escaped from the watchful eye of the master and run out to play in a
Hark! Was that a servant calling? Had Wang discovered the absence of his
employer? Would he sound the alarm, and would the whole place soon be
alive with men searching for the fever-stricken patient?
With one last sigh of satisfaction Li flung himself, clothes and all,
into the quiet waters of the fish-pond. Now Li had been brought up in
Fukien province on the seashore, and was a skilful swimmer. He dived and
splashed to his heart's content, then floated on the surface. "It takes
me back to my boyhood," he cried, "why, oh why, is it not the fashion
to swim? I'd love to live in the water all the time and yet some of my
countrymen are even more afraid than a cat of getting their feet wet.
As for me, I'd give anything to stay here for ever."
"You would, eh?" chuckled a hoarse voice just under him, and then there
was a sort of wheezing sound, followed by a loud burst of laughter. Mr.
Li jumped as if an arrow had struck him, but when he noticed the fat,
ugly monster below, his fear turned into anger. "Look here, what do you
mean by giving a fellow such a start! Don't you know what the Classics
say about such rudeness?"
The giant fish laughed all the louder. "What time do you suppose I have
for Classics? You make me laugh till I cry!"
"But you must answer my question," cried Mr. Li, more and more
persistently, forgetting for the moment that he was not trying some poor
culprit for a petty crime. "Why did you laugh? Speak out at once,
"Well, since you are such a saucy piece," roared the other, "I will tell
you. It was because you awkward creatures, who call yourselves men, the
most highly civilized beings in the world, always think you understand a
thing fully when you have only just found out how to do it."
"You are talking about the island dwarfs, the Japanese," interrupted Mr.
Li, "We Chinese seldom undertake to do anything new."
"Just hear the man!" chuckled the fish. "Now, fancy your wishing to stay
in the water for ever! What do you know about water? Why you're not even
provided with the proper equipment for swimming. What would you do if
you really lived here always?"
"What am I doing now?" spluttered Mr. Li, so angry that he sucked in a
mouthful of water before he knew it.
"Floundering," retorted the other.
"Don't you see me swimming? Are those big eyes of yours made of glass?"
"Yes, I see you all right," guffawed the fish, "that's just it! I see
you too well. Why you tumble about as awkwardly as a water buffalo
wallowing in a mud puddle!"
Now, as Mr. Li had always considered himself an expert in water sports,
he was, by this time, speechless with rage, and all he could do was to
paddle feebly round and round with strokes just strong enough to keep
himself from sinking.
"Then, too," continued the fish, more and more calm as the other lost
his temper, "you have a very poor arrangement for breathing. If I am not
mistaken, at the bottom of this pond you would find yourself worse off
than I should be at the top of a palm tree. What would you do to keep
yourself from starving? Do you think it would be convenient if you had
to flop yourself out on to the land every time you wanted a bite to eat?
And yet, being a man, I doubt seriously if you would be content to take
the proper food for fishes. You have hardly a single feature that would
make you contented if you were to join an under-water school. Look at
your clothes, too, water-soaked and heavy. Do you think them suitable
to protect you from cold and sickness? Nature forgot to give you any
scales. Now I'm going to tell you a joke, so you must be sure to laugh.
Fishes are like grocery shops--always judged by their scales. As you
haven't a sign of a scale, how will people judge you? See the point, eh?
Nature gave you a skin, but forgot the outer covering, except, perhaps
at the ends of your fingers and your toes You surely see by this time
why I consider your idea ridiculous?"
Sure enough, in spite of his recent severe attack of fever, Mr. Li had
really cooled completely off. He had never understood before what great
disadvantages there were connected with being a man. Why not make use of
this chance acquaintance, find out from him how to get rid of that
miserable possession he had called his manhood, and gain the delights
that only a fish can have? "Then, are you indeed contented with your
lot?" he asked finally. "Are there not moments when you would prefer to
be a man?"
"I, a man!" thundered the other, lashing the water with his tail. "How
dare you suggest such a disgraceful change! Can it be that you do not
know my rank? Why, my fellow, you behold in me a favourite nephew of
"Then, may it please your lordship," said Mr. Li, softly, "I should
be exceedingly grateful if you would speak a kind word for me to your
master. Do you think it possible that he could change me in some manner
into a fish and accept me as a subject?"
"Of course!" replied the other, "all things are possible to the king.
Know you not that my sovereign is a loyal descendant of the great water
dragon, and, as such, can never die, but lives on and on and on, for
ever and ever and ever, like the ruling house of Japan?"
"Oh, oh!" gasped Mr. Li, "even the Son of Heaven, our most worshipful
emperor, cannot boast of such long years. Yes, I would give my fortune
to be a follower of your imperial master."
"Then follow me," laughed the other, starting off at a rate that made
the water hiss and boil for ten feet around him.
Mr. Li struggled vainly to keep up. If he had thought himself a good
swimmer, he now saw his mistake and every bit of remaining pride was
torn to tatters. "Please wait a moment," he cried out politely, "I beg
of you to remember that I am only a man!"
"Pardon me," replied the other, "it was stupid of me to forget,
especially as I had just been talking about it."
Soon they reached a sheltered inlet at the farther side of the pond.
There Mr. Li saw a gigantic carp idly floating about in a shallow pool,
and then lazily flirting his huge tail or fluttering his fins proudly
from side to side. Attendant courtiers darted hither and thither, ready
to do the master's slightest bidding. One of them, splendidly attired in
royal scarlet, announced, with a downward flip of the head, the approach
of the King's nephew who was leading Mr. Li to an audience with his
"Whom have you here, my lad?" began the ruler, as his nephew, hesitating
for words to explain his strange request, moved his fins nervously
backwards and forwards. "Strange company, it seems to me, you are
keeping these days."
"Only a poor man, most royal sir," replied the other, "who beseeches
your Highness to grant him your gracious favour."
"When man asks favour of a fish,
'Tis hard to penetrate his wish--
He often seeks a lordly dish
To serve upon his table,"
repeated the king, smiling. "And yet, nephew, you think this fellow is
really peaceably inclined and is not coming among us as a spy?"
Before his friend could answer, Mr. Li had cast himself upon his knees
in the shallow water, before the noble carp, and bowed thrice, until his
face was daubed with mud from the bottom of the pool. "Indeed, your
Majesty, I am only a poor mortal who seeks your kindly grace. If you
would but consent to receive me into your school of fishes. I would for
ever be your ardent admirer and your lowly slave."
"In sooth, the fellow talks as if in earnest," remarked the king, after
a moment's reflection, "and though the request is, perhaps, the
strangest to which I have ever listened, I really see no reason why I
should not turn a fishly ear. But, have the goodness first to cease your
bowing. You are stirring up enough mud to plaster the royal palace of a
Poor Li, blushing at the monarch's reproof, waited patiently for the
answer to his request.
"Very well, so be it," cried the king impulsively, "your wish is
granted. Sir Trout," turning to one of his courtiers, "bring hither a
fish-skin of proper size for this ambitious fellow."
No sooner said than done. The fish-skin was slipped over Mr. Li's head,
and his whole body was soon tucked snugly away in the scaly coat. Only
his arms remained uncovered. In the twinkling of an eye Li felt sharp
pains shoot through every part of his body. His arms began to shrivel up
and his hands changed little by little until they made an excellent pair
of fins, just as good as those of the king himself. As for his legs and
feet, they suddenly began to stick together until, wriggle as he would,
Li could not separate them. "Ah, ha!" thought he, "my kicking days are
over, for my toes are now turned into a first-class tail."
"Not so fast," laughed the king, as Li, after thanking the royal
personage profusely, started out to try his new fins; "not so fast, my
friend. Before you depart, perhaps I'd better give you a little friendly
advice, else your new powers are likely to land you on the hook of some
lucky fisherman, and you will find yourself served up as a prize of the
"I will gladly listen to your lordly counsel, for the words of the Most
High to his lowly slave are like pearls before sea slugs. However, as I
was once a man myself I think I understand the simple tricks they use to
catch us fish, and I am therefore in position to avoid trouble."
"Don't be so sure about it. 'A hungry carp often falls into danger,'
as one of our sages so wisely remarked. There are two cautions I would
impress upon you. One is, never, never, eat a dangling worm; no matter
how tempting it looks there are sure to be horrible hooks inside.
Secondly, always swim like lightning if you see a net, but in the
opposite direction. Now, I will have you served your first meal out of
the royal pantry, but after that, you must hunt for yourself, like every
other self-respecting citizen of the watery world."
After Li had been fed with several slugs, followed by a juicy worm for
dessert, and after again thanking the king and the king's nephew for
their kindness, he started forth to test his tail and fins. It was no
easy matter, at first, to move them properly. A single flirt of the
tail, no more vigorous than those he had been used to giving with his
legs, would send him whirling round and round in the water, for all
the world like a living top; and when he wriggled his fins, ever so
slightly, as he thought, he found himself sprawling on his back in a
most ridiculous fashion for a dignified member of fishkind. It took
several hours of constant practice to get the proper stroke, and then he
found he could move about without being conscious of any effort. It was
the easiest thing he had ever done in his life; and oh! the water was so
cool and delightful! "Would that I might enjoy that endless life the
poets write of!" he murmured blissfully.
Many hours passed by until at last Li was compelled to admit that,
although he was not tired, he was certainly hungry. How to get something
to eat? Oh! why had he not asked the friendly nephew a few simple
questions? How easily his lordship might have told him the way to get
a good breakfast! But alas! without such advice, it would be a whale's
task to accomplish it. Hither and thither he swam, into the deep
still water, and along the muddy shore; down, down to the pebbly
bottom--always looking, looking for a tempting worm. He dived into the
weeds and rushes, poked his nose among the lily pads. All for nothing!
No fly or worm of any kind to gladden his eager eyes! Another hour
passed slowly away, and all the time his hunger was growing greater and
greater. Would the fish god, the mighty dragon, not grant him even one
little morsel to satisfy his aching stomach, especially since, now that
he was a fish, he had no way of tightening up his belt, as hungry
soldiers do when they are on a forced march?
Just as Li was beginning to think he could not wriggle his tail
an instant longer, and that soon, very soon, he would feel himself
slipping, slipping, slipping down to the bottom of the pond to die--at
that very moment, chancing to look up, he saw, oh joy! a delicious red
worm dangling a few inches above his nose. The sight gave new strength
to his weary fins and tail. Another minute, and he would have had the
delicate morsel in his mouth, when alas! he chanced to recall the advice
given him the day before by great King Carp. "No matter how tempting it
looks, there are sure to be horrible hooks inside." For an instant Li
hesitated. The worm floated a trifle nearer to his half-open mouth. How
tempting! After all, what was a hook to a fish when he was dying? Why be
a coward? Perhaps this worm was an exception to the rule, or perhaps,
perhaps any thing--really a fish in such a plight as Mr. Li could not be
expected to follow advice--even the advice of a real KING.
Pop! He had it in his mouth. Oh, soft morsel, worthy of a king's desire!
Now he could laugh at words of wisdom, and eat whatever came before his
eye. But ugh! What was that strange feeling that--Ouch! it was the fatal
With one frantic jerk, and a hundred twists and turns, poor Li sought
to pull away from the cruel barb that stuck so fast in the roof of his
mouth. It was now too late to wish he had kept away from temptation.
Better far to have starved at the bottom of the cool pond than to be
jerked out by some miserable fisherman to the light and sunshine of the
busy world. Nearer and nearer he approached the surface. The more he
struggled the sharper grew the cruel barb. Then, with one final splash,
he found himself dangling in mid-air, swinging helplessly at the end of
a long line. With a chunk he fell into a flat-bottomed boat, directly
on top of several smaller fish.
"Ah, a carp!" shouted a well-known voice gleefully; "the biggest fish
I've caught these three moons. What good luck!"
It was the voice of old Chang, the fisherman, who had been supplying
Mr. Li's table ever since that official's arrival in the village of
Everlasting Happiness. Only a word of explanation, and he, Li, would be
free once more to swim about where he willed. And then there should be
no more barbs for him. An escaped fish fears the hook.
"I say, Chang," he began, gasping for breath, "really now, you must
chuck me overboard at once, for, don't you see, I am Mr. Li, your old
master. Come, hurry up about it. I'll excuse you this time for your
mistake, for, of course, you had no way of knowing. Quick!"
But Chang, with a savage jerk, pulled the hook from Li's mouth, and
looked idly towards the pile of glistening fish, gloating over his
catch, and wondering how much money he could demand for it. He had heard
nothing of Mr. Li's remarks, for Chang had been deaf since childhood.
"Quick, quick, I am dying for air," moaned poor Li, and then, with a
groan, he remembered the fisherman's affliction.
By this time they had arrived at the shore, and Li, in company with his
fellow victims, found himself suddenly thrown into a wicker basket. Oh,
the horrors of that journey on land! Only a tiny bit of water remained
in the closely-woven thing. It was all he could do to breathe.
Joy of joys! At the door of his own house he saw his good friend Sing
just coming out. "Hey, Sing," he shouted, at the top of his voice,
"help, help! This son of a turtle wants to murder me. He has me in here
with these fish, and doesn't seem to know that I am Li, his master.
Kindly order him to take me to the lake and throw me in, for it's cool
there and I like the water life much better than that on land."
Li paused to hear Sing's reply, but there came not a single word.
"I beg your honour to have a look at my catch," said old Chang to Sing.
"Here is the finest fish of the season. I have brought him here so that
you and my honoured master, Mr. Li, may have a treat. Carp is his
"Very kind of you, my good Chang, I'm sure, but I fear poor Mr. Li will
not eat fish for some time. He has a bad attack of fever."
"There's where you're wrong," shouted Li, from his basket, flopping
about with all his might, to attract attention, "I'm going to die of a
chill. Can't you recognise your old friend? Help me out of this trouble
and you may have all my money for your pains."
"Hey, what's that!" questioned Sing, attracted, as usual, by the word
money. "Shades of Confucius! It sounds as if the carp were talking."
"What, a talking fish," laughed Chang. "Why, master, I've lived nigh on
to sixty year, and such a fish has never come under my sight. There are
talking birds and talking beasts for that matter; but talking fish, who
ever heard of such a wonder? No, I think your ears must have deceived
you, but this carp will surely cause talk when I get him into the
kitchen. I'm sure the cook has never seen his like. Oh, master! I hope
you will be hungry when you sit down to this fish. What a pity Mr. Li
couldn't help you to devour it!"
"Help to devour myself, eh?" grumbled poor Li, now almost dead for lack
of water. "You must take me for a cannibal, or some other sort of
Old Chang had now gone round the house to the servants' quarters, and,
after calling out the cook, held up poor Li by the tail for the chef to
With a mighty jerk Li tore himself away and fell at the feet of his
faithful cook. "Save me, save me!" he cried out in despair; "this
miserable Chang is deaf and doesn't know that I am Mr. Li, his master.
My fish voice is not strong enough for his hearing. Only take me back to
the pond and set me free. You shall have a pension for life, wear good
clothes and eat good food, all the rest of your days. Only hear me and
obey! Listen, my dear cook, listen!"
"The thing seems to be talking," muttered the cook, "but such wonders
cannot be. Only ignorant old women or foreigners would believe that a
fish could talk." And seizing his former master by the tail, he swung
him on to a table, picked up a knife, and began to whet it on a stone.
"Oh, oh!" screamed Li, "you will stick a knife into me! You will scrape
off my beautiful shiny scales! You will whack off my lovely new fins!
You will murder your old master!"
"Well, you won't talk much longer," growled the cook, "I'll show you a
trick or two with the blade."
So saying, with a gigantic thrust, he plunged the knife deep into the
body of the trembling victim.
With a shrill cry of horror and despair, Mr. Li awoke from the deep
sleep into which he had fallen. His fever was gone, but he found himself
trembling with fear at thought of the terrible death that had come to
him in dreamland.
"Thanks be to Buddha, I am not a fish!" he cried out joyfully; "and now
I shall be well enough to enjoy the feast to which Mr. Sing has bidden
guests for to-morrow. But alas, now that I can eat the old fisherman's
prize carp, it has changed back into myself.
"If only the good of our dreams came true,
I shouldn't mind dreaming the whole day through."